Monday, February 10, 2014

What can Sochi teach us?

For a brief moment, the success and splendor of the 2014 Winter Olympics opening ceremony took the spotlight off the widely broadcast failures of Sochi. Last week, as journalists and athletes began making their way to the Olympic Village and hotel accommodations, photos and stories of blunders began flooding social media, following years of stories of corruption, and recently, much more passionate worldwide response to recent laws affecting the Russian lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender community. Even with sports and competition now in full swing, the behind the scenes stories continue to take the lead.

Mongolia got some positive time in the international Olympic media spotlight for being one of the first countries to arrive at the Olympic Village, joined by New Zealand, a fringe benefit of being a next-door neighbor. Two cross-country skiers, B.Byambadorj and Ch.Otgontsetseg, are representing Mongolia for its 13th bid for Winter Olympics glory – or at the very least, an effort towards winning Mongolia’s first Winter Olympics medal. Mongolia was not only among the most prompt to arrive in Sochi, but our athletes also made the top 10 best-dressed list with cozy team designs from Goyo Cashmere.

The Sochi Olympics have already gone down in history as the most expensive games in history. Original figures put the projected costs at 12 billion USD, but the final costs have exceeded 51 billion USD – reportedly more money spent than on every previous Winter Olympics combined. According to a CNN roundup of Sochi statistics, only an estimated 6.4 billion USD of the 51 billion price tag was sports-related spending. The bulk was spent on infrastructure related to the games. In recent decades, host nations have often seen their Olympics spending costs triple from initial estimates, but what’s been truly under fire is the hidden cost of Sochi spending.

The Sochi Games are meant to be a showpiece for the “New Russia,” a flashy, over-the-top, and top-of-the-line display of what post-Soviet Russia has to offer the world – plans in the works since 2007. But what’s being taken away by most of the global audience is a familiar sense of Soviet era corruption and obfuscation. Even Vladimir Putin’s response to the criticism around Sochi scandals has an air of the past, being broadly labeled as Western attempts to discredit him personally and Russia generally, and nothing more.

Over 1,500 families in Sochi, a city with a population of 350,000, were evicted (some at gunpoint) from their homes to clear the way for the building of the Sochi-Adler highway. The highway and accompanying rail line cuts through Sochinsky National Park. The national park is Russia’s second oldest and home to many endangered native species and sub-species of plants and animals, but is now also home to an Olympic waste dump. Most of the displaced families were offered compensation or new apartment housing, but many evicted households felt that what they were offered wasn’t fair value for their land and homes. A recent Los Angeles Times piece tells the story of families living in homes that were deemed as not up to code. The residents and owners didn’t receive any compensation and were forcefully evicted and left homeless. Some were even fined with demolition costs for the homes they were forced from.

For the last several years, Ulaanbaatar’s ger district residents have been relocated to make way for new apartment complexes. In 2010, J. Aldarjavkhlan, Executive Director of Residential Apartment Financing Corporation pushed for compulsory relocation to new apartments versus financial compensation for land. While many khashaas (plots of residential land) have been cleared for construction projects that may not be complete for another two years, many families are still waiting for the completion of their new apartments. Plots of 0.07 hectares have been deemed equivalent to one newly built two room (one-bedroom) apartment, an exchange that not all families believe is a fair trade. Now the push for relocating ger district families is also being fueled by efforts to cut Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution, as studies have shown the damaging effects of coal burning to heat ger district homes. Relocation has taken priority over providing required infrastructure to areas without access to the city’s water, heat and power grids.

Building up the site for the Sochi Games was problematic from the start. Bloomberg Businessweek wrote about the start of the troubles. Located on a remote floodplain and replete with underground streams, there have been construction challenges, landslides, flooding, damaged equipment and expensive delays in the delivery of materials. Unregistered laborers hired from across Central Asia and Russia were only partially paid for their work, or did not receive any salary at all following completion of their unofficial labor contracts. Companies hired for Olympic projects have had criminal cases opened against them for fraud and corruption, and many have been reported to have extremely close ties to Putin and his administration. These companies have been responsible for billions of dollars in spending authorized by the state on roads, bridges and pipelines to make the Winter Olympics possible. Bloomberg’s report on spending found that, on average, 70 percent of the spending on Sochi projects has been provided through Vnesheconombank, a state development bank whose supervisory board is led by the Prime Minister. That position was held by Putin at the time most of the loans for Olympic projects were being handled.

New hotels, condominiums and apartments have been built to house the estimated 2,800 athletes, their coaches, 3,000 performers for the opening and closing ceremonies, 37,000 Russian police officers being brought in to patrol the games, and the far fewer than expected foreign journalists, spectators and supporters attending the games. Getting to Sochi is expensive, and many have found that once you arrive you may not even have a functioning place to stay. As journalists and athletes began to check in, social media site Twitter exploded with “#Sochi” tweets sharing traveler woes such as hotels without lobbies, water outages, guests trapped in malfunctioning elevators, faulty plumbing, missing manhole covers, unfinished sidewalks, and showers without shower curtains. A Twitter account dedicated to sharing these tweets quickly gained 325,000 followers, while the official account of the Winter Olympics has only recently cleared 200,000 followers.

The overspending and last minute fixes before Olympic Games aren’t uncommon, and for anyone who has spent any length of time in Mongolia, the inconveniences of insufficient hotel amenities aren’t all that shocking when you live in a city that faces ongoing infrastructure challenges year round. The games will continue, despite the promise of continued protests of the Kremlin’s recently introduced anti-gay policies and despite the fears of more terrorist attacks in the area. At some point, the media will eventually start to cover the stories of the actual athletes competing in the shadow of Sochi’s scandals. While investigations of the underbelly of the games progress, preparations for Rio de Janeiro’s Summer Olympics will likely fall under greater scrutiny.

For now, we can focus on rooting for our respective teams. In recent years Mongolia has acted like a nation with something to prove, but hopefully it will learn from the mistakes of its northern neighbor. National pride should come from something much deeper than the quarries emptied to build roads.

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